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Walk Softly, Stranger
Film Noir Warner Archive Collection

Walk Softly, Stranger
Warner Archive Collection
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 81 min. / Weep No More / Street Date October 18, 2012 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 13.95
Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Spring Byington, Paul Stewart, Jack Parr, Jeff Donnell, John McIntire.
Harry J. Wild
Original Music Friedrich Hollaender
Written by Frank Fenton from a story by Manuel Seff and Paul Yawitz
Produced by Robert Sparks
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Howard Hughes certainly made a mess when he took control of RKO in 1948. He promised to give the studio a big boost but instead alienated every creative executive he hired and fired 75% of the staff. The 'capricious' Hughes practically insured that RKO would go into a financial tailspin.

One of Hughes' bad habits was shelving perfectly good completed productions for years without releasing them. It was a crazy policy, as even delaying a movie sends out a signal that it's damaged goods of one kind or another. RKO's head of production Dore Schary quit almost immediately, fed up with Howard Hughes' autocratic edicts and his refusal to consult on any matter big or small. The last production Schary oversaw wasWeep No More, an interesting film noir-inflected thriller / soap opera that paired two then-hot David O. Selznick contractees, Joseph Cotten and the exotic 'discovery' Alida Valli. The Italian actress had made her American debut in Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case, a monumental flop that did nothing for her. Starring in a shelved movie must have seemed the kiss of death, as Valli soon went back to Europe. She made only a couple more Hollywood pictures, one of them the oddball Miracle of the Bells.. Ironically, Joseph Cotten and Valli would immediately be paired in the Vienna-filmed Carol Reed masterpiece The Third Man, which at least made her a star in Europe, if not America. Strikingly beautiful, with piercing eyes, Ms. Valli would enjoy a busy career that included the Luchino Visconti masterwork Senso.

Amazingly, Howard Hughes waited two full years to release Weep No More, now titled Walk Softly, Stranger. RKO's publicity stressed a repeat of the star romantic pairing from The Third Man.

Frank Fenton's screenplay utilizes noir thriller elements to good effect. Mystery man Chris Hale (Joseph Cotten) breezes into the small town of Ashton, which is dominated by the Corelli Shoe Company. He gets a room at the boarding house of the sweet Mrs. Brentman (Spring Byington), with the story that he once lived there. He then takes a job in the shoe factory. Glib and suave, Chris talks himself into the Ashton Country Club and is soon passing himself off to the local heiress Elaine Corelli, as a boy from school who was too shy to speak to her. He's also fast on his feet, not skipping a beat when he discovers that Elaine is restricted to a wheelchair. Normally suspicious, hurt and bitter, Elaine is fascinated by Chris. He turns down a better job offered by Elaine's father, and begins visiting Elaine at the Corelli mansion most every night, always drifting in through a side entrance rather than ringing the doorbell. She talks about losing her carefree lifestyle in a skiing accident, and Chris confesses that he's really a professional gambler with no roots. She still trusts him.

Chris Hale hasn't told Elaine that his name is really Steve. He joins forces with Whitey Lake (Paul Stewart), another losing gambler, to rob the crooked nightclub of mob boss Bowen. They walk away with $100,000 apiece and then part company. Steve returns to Ashton to 'disappear' into his new identity. He talks Elaine into going on a date, and handles things beautifully when she becomes depressed after watching him dance with another woman. Chris defuses each of Elaine's objections and reinforces her trust by showing no interest in her money. But then Whitey shows up, broke and scared that Bowen will catch up with him. Chris handles Whitey well enough, but he's spotted at the airport one day and Bowen's men close in. True to his nature, Chris refuses to panic. But can he satisfy Bowen and hold on to his relationship with Elaine?

Walk Softly, Stranger is an always-interesting thriller that succeeds on the charm of its star. Joseph Cotten is excellent as a con man that falls in love with his mark; few actors are as convincing as genuine gentlemen. In noir terms Chris Hale/Steve risks all to gain a life of security that gambling has denied him. Then he finds out that he'd be just as happy and far more secure if he'd skipped the armed robbery part of his master plan. Chris Hale's friendship with Elaine is quite well developed. Part of Elaine's pessimism may be her inability (?) to have sex, but a Hollywood movie of 1948 was not going to broach that subject in any way, shape or form. Whatever their relationship might become, Cotten and Valli make it look like it can work out.

That ultimate optimism of course knocks Walk Softly, Stranger out of the mainstream of film noir, but Frank Fenton's screenplay generates tension between the story's cynical crime aspect and the small-town wholesomeness. And since Chris Hale was never an Uncle Charlie- type of maniac, he's the kind of guy we can get behind.

The interesting supporting cast includes John McIntire as Chris's boss at the shoe factory (we never see Chris at work, exactly) and Frank Puglia as Elaine's father, who will help any man who can bring some happiness to her life. Paul Stewart is quite good as the near frantic partner who starts to get violent, and Spring Byington is lovely as the sweet landlady, helping Chris seem like the nicest cheap crook you'd ever want to meet. The only person who sticks out is Jack Paar -- that Jack Paar -- as an office 'character' who sets Chris up with a date, played by the always good Jeff Donnell (an actress). Paar just doesn't seem natural, and not because he'd soon become such a well-known television personality.

Interestingly, Walk Softly, Stranger functions like a twist on Dreiser's An American Tragedy, with all the characters changed around. A nobody comes into town and attaches himself to a wealthy family, but his social class complications with the underworld trip him up, at least to a degree.

So why isn't this a better-known movie? Well, it's not exactly brilliant in the final stretch. Although there's no outward sign of GHHT (Gross Howard Hughes Tampering), Chris's miraculous ability to survive point blank pistol shots rivals that of Victor Mature in Kiss of Death. The truth is that Walk Softly, Stranger still seems a little off balance -it is just too easy for Chris to drift into the good life with Elaine. So no other crook pals of Chris are going to show up to bother him again? Let's hope not.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Walk Softly, Stranger is a good transfer of a movie that surely spent most of its life playing TV matinees for housewives that dearly loved Joseph Cotten. The element is mostly in good shape, with a large scratch or two showing up. The audio is clear.

The release featured particularly striking original posters of faces on a jet-black background, which the WAC uses for its package art. Which quasi-noir RKO pictures would I like to see from the Warner Archive? I'd nominate The Company She Keeps with Jane Greer and Lizabeth Scott, and Richard Fleischer's The Clay Pigeon, story by Carl Foreman.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Walk Softly, Stranger rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good +
Subtitles: None
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 19, 2013

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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